Monday, October 13, 2014

Movie Review - The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes (1938) - As young socialite Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) journeys back to England to be married to a man she doesn't really love, she makes friends with a kindly older woman, Mrs. Froy (Dame May Whitty), on the train.  Shortly the older woman disappears and all the other passengers deny they ever saw her.  With the help of self assured musician Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) she hunts for the truth on the train in this comic drama directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock had developed an outstanding reputation for his work in England and Hollywood was considering bringing him to the U.S.  The problem was that his previous four movies hadn't been particularly successful.  When legendary American producer David. O. Selznick saw "The Lady Vanishes" he knew that Hitchcock was up to the challenge.  This was his next to last movie in England before making the move.  Curiously, his final English movie ("Jamaica Inn") was a box office success but Hitchcock never liked it.  He did not make his trademark cameo appearance in it.  At least one movie critic considers it one of the 50 worst movies of all time.

This is a classic train mystery.  Someone disappears on a moving train when it shouldn't be possible to just disappear.  Hitchcock's trademark sense of whimsy in on display here from the opening scene in an overwhelmed small European hotel.  This is the movie that introduces two classic English characters in Charters and Caldicott (played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford).  The two cricket obsessed gentlemen aren't well known in the States but became quite popular in England.  They would go on to appear in a variety of movies and radio shows, eventually even getting their own TV series.

The movie was a career launching pad for several actors beyond Wayne and Radford.  Margaret Lockwood was relatively unknown prior to taking the role and Michael Redgrave was an up and coming stage actor who had never been on the screen before.  This movie would launch him into stardom.  Dame May Whitty was already an established performer with an Oscar nomination (Supporting Actress, 1937 for "Night Must Fall") to her credit.

"The Lady Vanishes" lacks the claustrophobic intensity of many of Hitchcock's classic American films but it keeps the action moving very nicely.  Everything works well together to create a truly enjoyable movie experience.

Rating - **** Recommended

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Book Review - Spy Handler

Spy Handler - Memoirs of a KGB Officer - Victor Cherkashin with Gregory Feifer (2005) - In the last 30 years two spies for the U.S.S.R./Russia did more damage to American security than any others - Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.  Victor Cherkashin was the man who "ran" both of them for the Soviets from their recrutiment to the time of his retirement. Ames was a C.I.A. employee, Hanssen was an F.B.I. agent. When it comes to the number of American agents betrayed Hanssen is number one and Ames is number two.  Cherkashin takes the reader to the other side of the story to see the Soviets reaction to the information and how the two spies were eventually exposed.

Espionage is a difficult subject in democratic societies.  It feels dishonest some how, harking back to the days of Secretary of State Henry Stimson who famously said "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail".  The Soviet Union had no such compunctions.  They also take a simple approach to those who betrayed them.  A quick trial followed by an equally quick bullet to the back of the head.  The actions of the two American spies resulted in at least dozens, if not a hundred deaths.  Fortunately for them they were convicted in the United States where they only received life imprisonment without possibility of parole as their sentences.

At the same time we need to realize that when we (the U.S.A.) convince people in other countries to do the exact same thing as Hanssen and Ames we consider them "good guys".  That doesn't excuse either of them but we need to face the uncomfortable reality of the intelligence world.

Cherkashin presents that world without any pretense that it is the world of James Bond.  Intelligence work is painstakingly slow with mountains of paperwork.  The spies who betray their countries are rarely ideological purists.  Both the Soviets who spied for us and the Americans who spied for them were usually people with some kind of ax to grind.  They wanted money, they wanted revenge, they felt that they weren't being properly appreciated in their own countries.  The motivations are simple, sad and unpleasant.

Because of that this doesn't really qualify as an "exciting" read.  No car chases, no beautiful female spies.  It's a straight forward look at the most important espionage cases in recent U.S. history from the side who had the most to gain.  If you are as fascinated by the real world of espionage as I am, you'll find the book well worth your time.

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Monday, October 6, 2014

Movie Review - 1776

1776 (1972) - America's Founding Fathers and the history around the creation of the Declaration of Independence are turned into a musical.  The personalities and conflicts that eventually led to one of the greatest documents in American history come together in song and comedy.

This is an interesting movie in many ways.  Most of the story is pretty well known to most viewers.  The cast are solid B-actors (Howard Da Silva, William Daniels, Ken Howard) plus veterans of the stage version of the show.  Yet somehow it never quite comes together.

First, there's something just a little uncomfortable with this pivotal moment in our history being treated as musical comedy.  1776 alternates between some pretty fair history and typical musical silliness. Richard Henry Lee gets particularly short shrift as the comic relief.  On the other hand, they do a really nice job with the profound love between John and Abigail Adams.  Based on actual correspondence between the two it brings a nice human aspect to the otherwise acerbic Adams. In the end though, it all just feels a little wrong.

Second, this musical feels like it has no musical numbers in it.  The soundtrack lists 15 songs but I never would have guessed that.  By far the biggest problem facing this (or any musical) is what some folks call the "parking lot song".  It's the song you walk out humming or singing.  1776 simply doesn't have one.  There are a couple of fun songs but you forget them almost immediately. That's death for a musical.

At the end of it all, what you have is a fun little musical that just might teach you a little about American history (although you should be very careful with that, the authors took some serious liberties with the actual history).  It's certainly a fun way to spend a couple hours.

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

From My Shelves - To The Vanishing Point

To The Vanishing Point by Alan Dean Foster (1988) -  The Sonderberg family doesn't know it yet, but this isn't going to be any ordinary road trip. A quiet drive down Interstate 40 becomes a trip into an alternate reality when they pick up an unassuming hitchhiker. It turns out the family has just given a ride to an alien who has the fate of the universe resting on her shoulders. Now the Sonderberg family must fight evil alongside their new alien friend in a desperate attempt to save the world they love.


Foster is one of those science fiction writers that keeps popping up with stories I love.  I had read some of the stories involving his character of Flinx with his mini-dragon Pip.  So when I saw the description of this one I jumped on it.  I have never regretted that decision.  It's a fascinating combination of science fiction and faith as the family finds itself driving directly into Hell.  Yeah, the one we learned about in Sunday school.  Well, sort of.

The story does a fabulous job of weaving together some very realistic family dynamics with some parallel universe science fiction and all the demons (including the bureaucratic) of Hell.  The result is a story that feels entirely too real while taking the reader to some fascinating places.

From the very first time I read it I thought "This would make a GREAT movie".  The problem was that the special effects probably couldn't keep up with the needs of the story back in 1988.  Today, it wouldn't be a problem and it would still make a great movie.

Preparing to do this review gave me the chance to read this book again.  I loved it just as much this time as all the others.  The book is still available in hardback, paperback and e-book versions.  

If you love science fiction this should on your shelves as well.


Monday, September 29, 2014

Movie Review - Sophie's Choice

Sophie's Choice (1982) - After World War II a young writer (Peter MacNichol) from the south arrives in New York City to follow his dream.  There he meets a concentration camp survivor named Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her mercurial lover, Nathan (Kevin Kline).  Stingo (MacNichol) narrates the story of the three of them. Nathan's obsession with the camps and Sophie's desire to talk about anything else will be the center of conflict between them.

Based on the novel of the same name, this was a role that actresses were begging to do.  In Streep's case legend says she literally got down on her hands and knees to appeal to director Alan J. Pakula (who also wrote the screenplay and co-produced the movie) for the role of Sophie.  Fortunately for us, he decided on her.

She has to portray Sophie as an exhausted, ill, new immigrant and as the beautiful but fragile Sophie through the main action to the stunning ending.

"Sophie's Choice" won awards around the world led by Streep's Oscar for Best Actress. She is amazing as the delicate Sophie.  This was Kline's second movie but it was the first that hit the screen due to post production issues on the first (Pirates of Penzance) this was effectively his film debut. He brings his distinctive blend of energy, depth and just a tinge of madness. This is also MacNichol's second mvie.

This is a powerful, emotional movie.  At the same time, it comes to an almost gentle end.  Profoundly sad but very gentle.  It's an amazing time with a movie.

Rating - **** Recommended

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Book Review - Cooking on a Dollar Store Budget

Cooking on a Dollar Store Budget - Rekaya Gibson - When she was unemployed Rekaya Gibson needed recipes that met two criteria.  First, they needed to be inexpensive because her budget was tight.  Second, she wasn't ready to give up on taste in her meals.  Working with ingredients that she could find at local dollar stores she created 52 recipes that meet both of those standards.  Now she's offering those tried and true recipes for anyone who finds themselves wanting tasty food on a budget.

This is absolutely not the usual kind of book I review here.  But I met Ms. Gibson at the Williamsburg Book Fair last week.  As an aspiring cook myself I opened the book with a certain amount of skepticism.  What I found were simple recipes that sounded like some very good food.  Crockpot Curry Legs (Chicken), Steak Stir-Fry, Easy Jambalaya, Lobster Sliders, Shrimp Po' Boy, Homemade Ice Cream Sandwiches.  Ingredients that are all easy to come by, simple directions that should result very tasty meals.

On top of that, she's made sure that the book is available to the demographic that need it.  The book sells for just $5.  That's smart and smart marketing.  And that's worth giving a little boost here.

This would make a great gift for anyone who is on a tight budget.  We bought a copy for our daughter who will be moving out on her own in the near future.  College students would probably appreciate it as well.

Rekaya Gibson's fiction titles include Mama Don't Like UglyThe Food Temptress and the sequel, The Food Enchantress. In addition, she writes cookbook reviews for Cuisine Noir Magazine, articles for The Food Temptresblog, and restaurant reviews for the All Occasions Eater blog. 

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Monday, September 22, 2014

Movie Review - The Adventures of Priscilla, the Queen of the Desert

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) - Two drag queens and a transsexual travel to the center of Australia for the chance to perform.  Along the way they learn a lot about themselves and the people around them.

This is regarded as a pivotal moment in the portrayal of LGBT people in the movies.  While characters of this kind appeared in the movies before they were smaller roles and often not particularly sympathetic.  When the drag queens Tic (Hugo Weaving) and Felicia (Guy Pearce) join transsexual Bernadette (Terrance Stamp) in Priscilla, their tour bus, for a trip to Alice Springs the world was suddenly confronted with a very different look at gay and transsexual characters.  That's not to say they are portrayed without personal flaws.  Each of them is struggling with something and has to find a way forward with and/or despite those struggles.

In many ways it is Stamp's Bernadette that holds center stage.  Stamp brings great dignity to Bernadette who still hasn't completely left her biological gender behind (which turns out to be a good thing for Felicia at one point).  It is clear how much she longs to finally complete that journey.  There is an enormous sadness in the portrayal that grows more poignant as the movie progresses.  Pearce's Felicia lives at the very edge of control.  When that control slips we are provided with a pivotal moment in the story.  Weaving as Tic seems to be the "grounded" member of the trio but we discover his anguish in stages as they progress across the desert.  These are truly tour de force performances by all three actors.

Many viewers will find themselves uncomfortable when they first begin watching the movie.  The drag world of our three heroines is flamboyant, energetic, on edge and more than a little bit bitchy.  When you focus on them as people the movie will take you away.  It's a world that is unknown to many people but the lives shaped by fear, disappointment, anger, confusion and the search for love should be familiar to us all.

Interesting historical note - this movie came out in 1994, "To Wong Foo, With Love Julie Newmar" came out in 1995 and the Robin Williams/Nathan Lane version of the "The Birdcage" came out in 1996.  Each movie made more money than its predecessor with "Birdcage" zooming well past the 100 million dollar milepost worldwide.

Sit back, relax and be prepare to be charmed.

Rating - **** Recommended 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Movie Review - What's Eating Gilbert Grape

What's Eating Gilbert Grape - (1993) Gilbert is a young man with a dead end life in a dead end town in Iowa.  He helps care for his morbidly obese mother (Darlene Cates), and his mentally challenged brother Arne (Leonardo DiCaprio) with his two sisters.  Meanwhile a customer at the grocery store where Gilbert works (Mary Steenburgen) is fighting her own battle with a dead end life by having an affair with Gilbert.  One day a trailer on its way west breaks down and Gilbert meets Becky (Juliette Lewis) and discovers that there might be a life beyond what he can see.

This movie is from the days when your head was suddenly snapping around when the name of Johnny Depp was mentioned.  He had done some small roles in movies and been a heart throb star on the television series "21 Jump Street".  With 1990's "Edward Scissorhands" we all began to look at Depp differently.  It also set the standard for his eclectic decision making in role selection.  In '93 he would make both this movie and "Bennie and Joon", then in 1994 make "Ed Wood" and "Don Juan DeMarco".  At that point it was clear this was a young actor worth keeping an eye on.  Twenty years later he still is.  When you're willing to take the kind of chances Depp does you don't always land winners.  Consistently he make movies with interesting characters and stories.  That's no small thing.

Yet in this movie his performance is not the one you will walk away talking about.  That credit goes to Leonardo DiCaprio.  Like Depp he had done some small movie roles and a couple stints on TV ("Growing Pains" and "Parenthood") before moving over to films full time.  While it was "Titanic" four years later that would launch him into stardom, this movie shows some serious performance chops.  His mentally challenged Arne is completely believable (I went back and double checked this was in fact DiCaprio while I was watching the movie), with both depth and nuance.  It's pretty impressive for an actor of any age.  For a nineteen year old with a background in bit roles and sitcoms, it's a stunning turn.

There's not a lot of complexity to the story.  The complexity is in how Gilbert navigates the relationships in a very small town at first and the added options when Becky arrives in his life.  The characters feel real, the stress of their lives reads true and it makes for a movie that draws you in quietly.  Director Lasse Halstrom (MY Life As A Dog", "Chocolat", "The Shipping News" and "The Hundred Foot Journey" among many others) does a wonderful job of combining distinctive visual choices with a simple unfolding of the story.

I didn't quite know what to expect when I started "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?".  In the end I got so much more than I had hoped for.

Rating - **** Recommended

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Book Review - The Devil's Quota

The Devil's Quota by Tom Avitabile (2014, Story Plant) - Murder isn't simple when it kills an NYPD detective's partner and drags him into a conspiracy involving the economic 1%.  Detective DiMaggio follows the trail through the offices of a sexual behavior specialist and onto the international stage.  On the other side of the world an American Special Forces sergeant risks everything for the Afghan woman he loves.  Their path eventually leads back to the murder investigation in New York.

This is a solid mid-level thriller with decent story telling and some interesting twists.  I was a little worried when the author introduced the character of Cassandra Cassidy, the sexual behavior psychiatrist, who specializes in some kinky modification procedures.  He handled it well, allowing the concept to titillate without going completely over the top.  The relationship between the doctor and the detective never quite comes off the way I think he hoped but again he manages to make some interesting choices there as well.

I will admit to struggling a little with this book.  There's an early section concerning the Afghan story line that slips over into romance novel writing that did nothing for me.  The romance is necessary to the story line but the story felt like it veered off course at that point.  Honestly, I think he undersold that half of the story.  There was more to be created in that part of the novel that never felt like was fully explored.  The book is only 338 pages so there was certainly room for the growth of that story.

If there's a serious weakness to the book it's when Avitabile tries for snappy dialogue.  DiMaggio and Cassidy have the potential for some flirty, flinty back and forth in the tradition of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, or even Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in "Moonlighting".  In the end it just feels like he's trying to be clever rather than letting it happen.

Tom Avitabile admits to an enviable editing practice for his novels.  He takes them to a beach in Puerto Rico and does his work surround by the ocean, the sand and the occasional bikini.  I honestly can't think of a better place to read this novel.  On a sandy beach or wrapped in a blanket in a cooler clime.  This is the kind of book you want to snuggle up with for a quick and quiet thrill.

"The Devil's Quota" hits the bookshelves October 28, 2014.  You can pre-order it today.

Rating - *** Worth A Look

Monday, September 8, 2014

Movie Review - The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger (2013) - The classic western icon of the "Lone Ranger" returns to the screen as John Reid (Armie Hammer) survives an ambush that kills his brother.  The killers leave him behind, believing him dead.  A Comanche warrior/mystic, Tonto (Johnny Depp), finds the Ranger and joins forces with him to track down the bad guys.

I swore I wasn't going to watch this movie.  The trailers were so wretched that I saw no reason to spend even a matinee ticket's cost on it.

Turns out I was I right.

Astoundingly, Jerry Bruckheimer, one of the producers, believes that this is an under appreciated classic that will find a following as the years go by.  He believes the same thing about 2012's "John Carter of Mars" (see my review "John Carter of Meh").  I can only believe that this is the early symptoms of dementia for the legendary Hollywood producer.  If there is a future following for these movies it will be only as colossal catastrophes.

There is one good thing about this movie.  Visually, it is impressive.  There are clear homages to the work of John Ford and many of the great westerns.  Director Gore Verbinski manages to make the best of a visual hand made entirely of aces.

There's not much else to recommend this travesty.  It's an insult to the icon of "The Lone Ranger", an insult to American Indians, an insult to westerns and an insult to any movie viewer with an IQ above room temperature.  Depp as Tonto is just awful.  Armie Hammer's John Reid is an imbecile.  There is not a single moment in the movie that isn't utterly predictable.  Well, let me reconsider that last thought.  The movie lurches from comic to drama in a completely unpredictable manner.  It's like they had two completely different concepts for the movie, couldn't pick one and just jammed the two scripts together.  There's an utter disregard for the "canon" of the Lone Ranger story that would be fine if this were a full on parody.  But it's not.  There's way too much serious violence that would be fine if this were a grown up approach to the well worn story. I mean, seriously, how do you go from cutesy, smug badinage to cutting out a Texas Ranger's heart and eating it?  Thankfully, virtually all of that takes place off screen.  Quite honestly, the smartest, most "together" character in the movie is the horse, Silver.

There's a wrap around "narration" part that involves an elderly Tonto at a Wild West show that makes very little sense and adds even less to the movie.  And don't even get me started on the cannibalistic, demon bunnies.  Oh, how I wish I were kidding.

The final straw for me was the realization that they had decided to make the recurring "joke" of the movie the line "So what's with the mask?" in place of the iconic "Who was that masked man?".  Some things are just unforgivable.

Thankfully the movie was a colossal failure at the box office so there won't be a sequel.  Giacomo Rossini's descendants should sue for the abuse of the "William Tell Overture".

Rating - * Forget It